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Towel Season (1998)
Ron Carlson
Highly Rated!

Contributed by Will Estes

A mathematician and his wife try to fit in with their suburban neighbors. Perhaps the best description of the feel of what doing mathematical research is really like. Much of the tension of the story revolves around the protagonist's struggles to communicate with his friends and his wife. The tension is resolved when he and his wife revive their communication about his work through a game of extended metaphors.

Will Estes is right: this story is great. While many works of mathematical fiction use metaphors to try to describe mathematics, none does it so explicitly and creatively as this one. Here's just a sample:

(quoted from Towel Season)

When they were dating, he'd begun to try to explain his work to her in metaphors, and she'd continued the game through his career, asking him for comparisons that she'd then inhabit, embellish. Right after they were married and Edison was in graduate school, he'd work late into the night in their apartment and crawl into bed with the calculations still percolating in his head. "What's it like?" Leslie would ask. "Where are you now?" She could tell he was remote, lit. They talked in territories.

"I've crossed all the open ground, and the wind has stopped now. My hope is to find a way through this next place."


"Right. Okay, mountains--blank, very few markings." He spoke carefully and with a quiet zeal. "They're steep, hard to see."

"Is it cold?"

"No, but it is strange. It's quiet." Then he'd turn to her in bed, his eyes bright, alive. "I'm way past the path. I don't think anyone has climbed this route before. There are no trails, handholds."

Leslie would smile and kiss him in that close proximity. "Keep going," she'd say. "Halfway up that mountain, there's a woman with a cappuccino cart and a chicken-salad sandwich--me."

Then a smile would break across his face, too, and he would see her, kiss her back, and say it: "Right. You."

This story was published originally in Esquire (May 1 1998) and now appears in a collection of stories by Carlson. Apparently you can also see a copy online at various sites that let you read articles from old issues of Esquire for a small fee. The story strikes me as being surprisingly sexist for 1998 (all of the mathematicians are men, and all of the wives stay at home laundering towels and flirting shamelessly), but perhaps that's what Esquire magazine readers go for.

Contributed by Charles Hammond

I heard this story read on Selected Shorts on NPR a little over a year ago. It addresses math in a human context. But it also humanizes the couple's mathematical lives in a way no other fiction I've read about mathematical lives, or any other deeply theoretical or academic lives, does. Its treatment of metaphor as a linguistic bridge to mathematical understanding explores the nature of thinking, knowing, and communicating--all closely interrelated activities.

Contributed by Anonymous

This story addresses the stereotype of the isolated mathematician. In Edison's case, this isolation is both physical and mental. It's only when he begins to socialize with the neighbors that he becomes "normal", however he loses grip on his calculations--"it all [runs] away." The more isolated and "quirky" Edison is, the more he wants to solve the math--the more he wants to climb those mountains. But, when he tries to fit the norm, "his calculations [seem like] a cruel puzzle, someone else's work, dead, forgotten, useless."

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Works Similar to Towel Season
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Into Thin Air by Colin Adams
  2. Maths on a Plane by P T
  3. Zilkowski's Theorem by Karl Iagnemma
  4. A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin
  5. The Ore Miner's Wife by Karl Iagnemma
  6. The Arnold Proof by Jessica Francis Kane
  7. Problems for Self-Study by Charles Yu
  8. Elegantly, In the Least Number of Steps by Monica McFawn
  9. Herr Doctor's Wondrous Smile by Vladimir Tasic
  10. The Tolman Trick by Manil Suri
Ratings for Towel Season:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
4/5 (4 votes)
Literary Quality:
4.5/5 (4 votes)

MotifAnti-social Mathematicians, Proving Theorems, Romance,
MediumShort Stories,

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May 2016: I am experimenting with a new feature which will print a picture of the cover and a link to the page for a work of mathematical fiction when it is available. I hope you find this useful and convenient. In any case, please write to let me know if it is because I would be happy to either get rid of it or improve it if that would be better for you. Thanks! -Alex

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)